Since November, Chris Grant and JaQuel Knight have been up to their elbows in marching bands, musicians and dancers — dozens of men and women from an array of traditions.
Beyoncé may have been front and center at her spectacular Coachella performances last month. But two of her secret weapons were Mr. Grant and Mr. Knight, the show’s main choreographers.
From the start Beyoncé was clear about what she wanted. “She said, ‘Let’s do a homecoming,’” Mr. Knight said. “Boom. A nice, clear concept that we were all able to snap into and execute.”
In the nearly two-hour performance, references to homecoming at historically black colleges and universities (H.B.C.U.s) — complete with a marching band and a glittering majorette solo — lived alongside dance styles ranging from flexing, a form born on the streets of Brooklyn, to stepping, a percussive form popular in fraternities and sororities.
Beginning in December, Mr. Grant and Mr. Knight worked with Beyoncé’s music team and started their preliminary dance preparations. By January, they started skeleton-crew rehearsals. “We worked with 12 dancers for a month just to start to further develop the ideas that we laid down in December,” Mr. Knight said. “We started to build choreography.”
Gradually, they added more dancers and used them to create the precision movements for the musicians. “When we got to the band we simplified it even more,” Mr. Grant said. “Some of them had their own natural feeling, which we loved.”
But their favorite part of the experience, they said, was working with Beyoncé, who thrives on collaboration. They’ve worked with her for 10 years. (Among other credits, Mr. Knight is known for the “Single Ladies” video; Mr. Grant, Mr. Knight and Dana Foglia for “Formation.”) “She’s all about hearing us out,” Mr. Grant said, “because you may have a perspective on something that can be really cool. No matter who it comes from, if it’s magical, if it’s hot,” she’s interested.
In a telephone interview this week, Mr. Knight, 28, and Mr. Grant, 29, discussed their latest theatrical adventure and their devotion to Beyoncé. As Mr. Grant said: “I feel like I’m living in a generation where she is the new Michael.”
These are edited excerpts from our conversation.
Did Beyoncé talk about the show’s choices in terms of its politics?
JaQUEL KNIGHT We don’t really consider it political. For us, it’s embracing who we are. The show was very black, for a lack of a better word, from all aspects, and we wanted to show love through who we are. This is where we come from and this is how we love and this is how we jam and this is our world. I think the whole H.B.C.U.s and the homecoming experience is a very specific experience. If you’ve never been to a homecoming game, you don’t know.
She wanted to introduce that to the world?
KNIGHT Yeah. That’s something that hasn’t been done before on the stage like this and it feels good. Beyoncé’s all about how can we do things differently, but keep the musicianship and the showmanship and the precision of it all — it just made sense. She’s been adding horns to her songs for the past couple of years and boom: Let’s get a whole band. So much of what we’ve been doing made sense in this world — even with the things we were doing with “Formation.”
What kind of movement looks good on Beyoncé? What is natural?
CHRIS GRANT She’s really good with her neck. She can really hit and snap at certain moments, but also be cool and chill.
KNIGHT She can do anything. She’s weird. I’ve seen times where she imitates people. When you put somebody magical in the room she will make them do it 10 times, 20 times. She’s pulling and learning from you and toward the end it’s like, “Wow — you are really studying me and you are really getting it.”
One thing about Beyoncé is she pays attention to detail. That’s what I learned from her. You’ve really got to pay attention and then on top of that, add your own sauce.
What kind of stamina does she need toget through a show like this? Do you work with her on cross-training?
KNIGHT She has a trainer and she also comes in and does a full dance warm-up and stretch with us. She just had twins, so we spent a lot of time strengthening her and getting her back into it. Your body goes into shock if you’re not prepared to do a show of this caliber.
Is there a signature style for the female backup dancers?
KNIGHT We have created a language with the choreography that has a street vibe and a great line as well. So the body always looks good. And then it’s a level of personality on top and feeling — things you really can’t teach. It’s a combination of technique, street and personality. And magic.
How did you put together the marching band for the show?
KNIGHT We flew quite a few people in from Atlanta, because it was pretty difficult to cast in L.A. for the specific swag and funk and charisma that we were looking for. We worked with Don Roberts, who was the consultant on “Drumline.” We basically created our own professional level marching band.
How did you focus your time with a show this huge?
KNIGHT No one does one job. There’s no “you’re the music guy, you’re the choreographer, you’re this, you’re that.” It’s creative. [Beyoncé] allows us all to be open: What are your thoughts on this? Chris is the guy from choreography who also splits his time making sure the music is correct. He’s even built in his own tracks and presents ideas to Beyoncé. She’s all about whatever’s hot is hot.
Does Beyoncé like the rehearsal process?
KNIGHT Beyoncé’s going to rehearse every day. [Laughs] We have rehearsal every day — forever — until the show: “Do it again, do it again. O.K., one more time. O.K., I’m gonna go, maybe y’all can do it once more and send me the tape.” She just wants the show to be tight.
GRANT Everything we do, everything is choreographed — it’s not just movement. It’s never going to be perfect, and that’s the whole point of rehearsing to the last minute. Everything is choreographed to a T.
Do you wish it were looser?
GRANT We’re so crazy like her that we’re just kind of used to it. Anything can happen, but when you’re so well rehearsed you’re also prepared. You can just can hop off and hop right back in like nothing. And to me she’s the queen of it.
Did you get to rehearse in the desert at all?
KNIGHT We had one day in the desert.
GRANT One day.
KNIGHT At Coachella, when it gets windy, you can’t rehearse. It was super windy the day of our rehearsal. They had to bring the lights and the speakers down. They shut us down. So that was our one day spent in the desert: We ran it once in the hot sun with no lights. This goes back to what Chris was saying — we have to be prepared.
Why did you want to incorporate so many kinds of movement?
KNIGHT It keeps everything interesting and it doesn’t allow your power to become stale. The audience can stay on its toes. We like to have technical moments — we have a duet with Jasmine Harper and King Havoc, where they combined their worlds. She comes from a beautiful ballet background and he comes from a beautiful street background. Use the flexers here. Come out and boom — let’s combine a bit of our African training here.
I think for Beyoncé, adding as many different elements of dance as we can is cool. As a pop entertainer, people see her as being one dimensional: coming out, shaking her butt and going to the next song. So we really tried to steer away from that.
Do you think that she knew how historic this show would be?
KNIGHT I don’t think any of us were expecting it to be this big of a thing. It’s still blowing my mind. We even had a quick conversation with Bey as we were rehearsing for Week Two. She was like: “Wow. People really loved the show, huh?”
GRANT She was saying, “I guess we did our job.”
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